THE FIRST FOUR MONTHS
I see what I would have done, you know, just there.
That one time when I could have leaned against the railing, a little misdirection and I could have flicked that switch maybe. Maybe I'd have found some way to short out the fuse box -- well, who am I kidding, of course I would have -- could have sent the Valiant into a free-fall. Could have.
Every time the Master's out here I see my opportunities, where I'd have knocked him down the stairs, or where I could have swung from the light fixture and captured a Toclafane, or where I could have nudged a lever three millimeters and saved Western China. I see the Doctor -- my Doctor, this regeneration, me -- all arms and legs and rudderless energy, my only gift and my only weapon. Instead arthritis and muscle atrophy make it so I can barely stand. I see precisely where I've failed.
"You can't do this," I begged, the first night we were alone together, him crouched beside my tent while I curled up naked under some dirty hay he'd dug up somewhere. "Really, properly, think about it, remember? Gallifrey? The way the light shone through the Eduan cathedral on the Island of the Waking Song. The nightscape over the city of Eb."
His eyes had been unwavering. "It all burned," he shrugged. An inconceivable shrug.
"It all burned," I repeat. "Except for you, and except for me. That's it, that's all of it, that's the Time Lords. Don't you get it?"
But he doesn't. He can't hear it, not over the sound of drums.
It's unimaginable to me, simply unimaginable that he would do this, that he would lock another Time Lord -- the only other Time Lord -- up this way, but I have ceased limiting my thoughts to the imaginable. And it isn't simply this creaking body -- which death keeps tugging toward the vanishing point -- that punishes me; my mind, my brilliant, resilient, ever-changing mind is slowing. It wanders for long periods at a time now, daydreaming like a human, and when I manage to catch hold of myself I've forgotten half the things I was thinking to begin with. It is breaking both my hearts.
"Oh, just leave him," the Master tells Francine, one morning when she's fussing over my tent. "Let him wallow in his filth for a while."
I give Francine a slow nod. It's okay. She steps back, away.
The Master crouches at the flap and waggles his fingers at me. I've lost my grimace but I blink at him.
"I see all your lives," I whisper. "I know you. Don't do this."
"And that's why I'll win," says the Master. "You and your cloying sentimentality, your nauseating humanness." He flings my food bowl at me and I don't even bother wiping the drips from my face.
"Just listen," I say, crawling toward him, my wispy voice getting lost in the air. "Just listen, please --"
"COME ON!" he hollers, letting me swing loose as he bounds up the stairs and waves his arms to take in his domain, the Valiant, the sound of drums. "DON'T YOU HEAR IT, DOCTOR?"
It takes all my strength to stand up, tip my chin up and look at him, the sad, crazed creature he's become. "You have to forgive me," I say. "Because I forgive you."
"HERE COME THE DRUMS!" he bellows, and goes sailing out of the room, and I'm alone again.
My days continue much like that, and they bleed into one another, and at night I make a psychic link with the Archangel network and I hear the Master's own ego dancing through the synapses like a poison. Sometimes, on very rare occasions when network traffic is down, when the Valiant is purring and its inhabitants asleep, I can even hear Martha, out walking the world.
Francine rustles over in the dark, and she peels open the tent flap and peeks inside. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," I whisper, my voice empty and hoarse. "Everything's fine, Francine."
"It's been so long, though, Doctor," Francine whispers. The room is empty and the Valiant is quiet for the distant thrum of the engines. "Martha, I mean. She could be --"
"But she's not," I say, firmly enough, and I square my teeth and fix my eyes on hers. "I promise you," I say. "Martha is coming back. She is coming back, and we just have to wait it out. Can you do that?"
There are tears in her eyes. "Can you?" she asks.
My one job, here at the end of my Time Lord life. To remain sane until Martha returns. So as always I wrench this ancient face into a grin and say, "Ho, yeah! Martha Jones is going to save us all."
Then the lights come on and the Master roars and Francine gives me just the faintest of smiles before she scurries off.
"The help can't help you, you know?" the Master says. Then he chuckles. "That's funny, help can't help, get it?"
"What do you want?" I hiss, struggling up.
The Master sits down and rolls his chair across the tile floor, stopping it with the toe of his shoe half an inch from me.
"Martha Jones can't save you either," he says.
"Mmm," I shrug. "But I think she will."
"And when will that be, Doctor?" the Master asks. "A year from now? Even if she does she'll be too late, for you, anyway. You're looking quite pasty, I might add," he says. "Been sleeping rough?"
I just show him my teeth, like a dog.
"Martha Jones can't save you," the Master says again. "Because you'll have died of old age long before she ever has a chance."
"You won't let that happen," I say, because I know he won't, that having me witness his complete conquering of Earth is why he's brought me here to begin with.
"I do want you to see the launch of my spectacular fleet," the Master muses. "So, what do you say? I give you back...fifty years?"
He aims the laser screwdriver straight for my head and out of anguishing pain hair grows, and muscle, and the ache in my bones fades along with the rasp in my throat.
When he's finished I collapse in a chair, heady with the thrill of being younger, stronger, and the Master knows he's pleased me
"And yet, still dying!" the Master says. "I mean, just look at yourself." He spins round on the chair and takes a tin plate from the table. In its reflection I can see my hollowed cheeks, my crooked beak, my birdlike shoulders. A human of eighty, ninety maybe stares back. But in it I also see my eyes, this regeneration's penetrating chocolate-brown stare, and so I look at the Master instead. And there I am, my reflection in his, Time Lord to Time Lord.
"It's not too late," I say. "For you, for us. You can stop this," I say.
He makes a fist. "Or, what if I suspended your ability to regenerate entirely?"
"You can't," I say.
"Well, that seals it!" He taps a couple buttons on an Archangel console and lines me up in his screwdriver's sight. "Let's see what a Gallifreyan really looks like at nine hundred."
The pain is exquisite, the shattering and the screaming between my ears and the burn of flesh ripping, organs failing, death speeding towards me and laughing in the Master's voice. It's more than any human could stand, and as I'm pushed past it I feel John Smith's death pass through me like a ghost, and instead I just get older and older and older still. At nine hundred years old I'm a offense of a creature, shriveled and panting, and he locks me up in a little copper cage and leaves me there.
His companion orders a suit for me, a mocking child's footie version of this regeneration's pinstripes. Francine does it up for me each day, just as she washes me when I soil myself, tends to me when my sores get infected, and massages my arthritic hands and feet, knees and elbows. My very own Mary Magdelene, Mrs. Jones. The Master watches.
I've had a quarter of a year to tune myself into the airship's psychic network and through it I forgive him, but he doesn't hear me over the sound of drums.
THE NEXT FOUR MONTHS
There's a thing about Time Lords, the way we see the world. We challenge every impossibility, and we go into danger like we think we're going to live forever. It's what allows us believe we can solve any problem, and what convinces us we can conquer our enemies, rescue our friends, and save the universe with time for tea besides.
Our magnificent egoes sent us racing into space, fast as we could, to meddle around in everyone's business, the universe a playground hung slack between the rare fixed points in time. Oh, and we had a day with it, too, rescuing civilizations from asteroids and blowing up dwarf stars just for fun.
And now there are no more Time Lords. Now there's just me. Me and the Master who spends his days trying to strip me of the pride he knows I have, the confidence I've maintained through ten regenerations and worse than him.
The fact that it's impossible, that my confidence is inborn -- and he knows it, he shares it -- seems meaningless to him. Instead he continues his tortures, like it's the ordinary man inside me he wants to destroy and he simply hasn't reached him yet.
The ordinary man inside me is so, so scared.
One morning the Master plucks me from my cage and deposits me on the floor. "I'm tired of looking at you," he says. "So alien and wrong, a Time Lord who can't regenerate."
"So stop this," I gasp.
"Try me!" the Master whirls, and I'm hit with a beam from the screwdriver that brings such blinding pain it drives me against the wall, spasming, screaming.
"But I did like this one," the Master says, pulling me to my feet. And here I am, back at the end of John Smith's life, and at a hundred and thirty my flesh is translucent and weak, and my hair -- I reach up to pat it; my elbow complains -- is wispy, thin. My skull is scabby. So human.
When he hands me the tin plate to check his work, for a moment I don't even recognize myself. No glimmer of Time Lord in the eyes looking back, might as well be John Smith himself, withered and at the end of a long, peaceful life as an ordinary human. For a moment, I even imagine I can only feel one heart beating in my hollow chest.
The Master reaches out and takes my face in both his hands. "Just look!" he exclaims. "I really am good."
His hands on my face feel more like Time Lord than anything this body has to offer me anymore. I take his hands with both of mine and press them into my cheeks. "Yes, do look," I croak. "Look what you've done."
John Smith, that other self I rejected, he had compassion, humility, and the capacity to love and be loved. He's what came along with this regeneration, him and his vulnerability, id-addled and libidinous. Too dangerous for a Time Lord, those vulnerabilities. But now that ramrod sense of confidence that's been with me all my life seems impossible and strange, replaced by human weakness and human fear. The Master strokes my cheek and I tremble.
"You were like me once," he says. "Do you even remember?"
My Doctor, shivering inside this body somewhere, says through clenched teeth: "I'm like you now. Just like you. Get it? We're the same."
The Master laughs, slips free from my grasp and bounds up to his desk. "Never!" he shouts. "There will always be a fundamental difference between you and me, even if it's simply the fact that, while I embrace the inevitability of my own death, you run from yours. Just like you run from everything, the great Doctor who never stands still."
"I'm standing still now," I say. "I'm standing here, right now."
He comes back down the stairs and gets up close to me. "I'm standing here," I say again.
"I can bring it crashing down upon you, Doctor," the Master says, raising his screwdriver again. "Make it so loud and so painful. Your own death."
"Don't do that," I say.
"After what you did to the Time Lords? To Gallifrey? I'd say you deserve it, don't you?"
I nod, several times. "I had no choice," I say. "You'd gone. Everyone was gone."
He grins at me.
"Yes," I say. "I probably deserve death, I deserve punishment for what I've done. And I may never be able to forgive myself. But I forgive you, do you understand? For running, for leaving me to do what had to be done, for everything. For leaving me alone."
"Well, I don't forgive you!" the Master snaps, and he bounds over to his desk. "But for fairness' sake, I'll give you one last chance."
I stand there, breathing, listening.
"So?" He waggles an eyebrow and then he shouts, "RUN, DOCTOR!"
I spin, counting exits, plotting trajectory -- there, that banister, then the corridor, then the galley -- and I leap and promptly come crumpling to the floor as my brittle bones snap beneath me, and I'm trapped in John Smith's dying, worthless body.
"Run," the Master says again. "Go on. Run. RUN!"
But I can't, not this time.
The Master raises his hands, turns them over as if he's showing me he's got nothing up his sleeve, that the only thing that's keeping me down is my own mortality, my frailty keeping me earthbound and frozen.
I lie on the ground. My cheek presses into the tile and I think my nose is broken. I taste blood.
"I forgive you," I whisper, and I crawl on broken knees back toward my tent.
"Bring on the drums!" he hollers, unhearing.
THE LAST FOUR MONTHS
Sometimes the Master takes me out in my wheelchair and we go for a roll around the flight deck of the Valiant. From up here, the sky is a brilliant blue, all wispy clouds and nothing but the universe above us.
"It's so beautiful, don't you think?" he asks me, but I'm looking up for the stars and he's staring down, counting his nukes. "This whole blue and green world, all ours."
"You don't have to kill them," I say. "Think about it. You and I, we could stay together, even here if you want. We can protect this world, rather than destroy it. It's too late for the Toclafane but you've made your point. It could be over right now."
He pauses, pretending to think it over. "True," he says. "But you got to destroy Gallifrey, a world which was of some importance to me; it seems only fair it should be my turn. C'mon," he pleads. "Tell me how much you love this planet, all of its humans and their primitive understanding and their sticky, stupid ways. Tell me it means more to you than Gallifrey ever did."
"I can't," I say, and my slowing mind moves thickly through images of home and here, humans and Time Lords loved and lost across ten regenerations. "I can't say that."
"Of course not!" The Master says, popping a wheelie and rocking me back in my chair. "Gallifrey, the Time Lords, our own home, and you destroyed it. I think you're getting a pretty fair bargain."
"If Gallifrey meant so much to you, how come you didn't stay and fight to save it?"
"Hear those drums?" he asks. "Getting closer. I bet I even get a standing ovation, before the alien races of the galaxy come swarm this place. My greatest achievement; bringing the wrath of the universe to the Doctor's second home. Feels good, don't it?"
"You left me alone, to bear sole responsibility for what I did in the war," I say. "I won't leave you the same way."
"As if you could," he snarls, and then and he starts singing as he wheels me back inside.
Before, when I was tall and strong and leaped from moment to moment without stopping to savor its fleeting freedom, I would never have had cause to doubt my Doctor. My Doctor, the Doctor I was, anyway, was indefatigable, he was, indefatigable and fearless. But now I feel him slipping from me, and what remains of this regeneration is my doubt and my fear, all the emotion and the ever-conscious mortality John Smith might have known.
My Doctor would never doubt, for example, that Martha Jones might get captured, or killed, or simply derailed from her mission. And my Doctor would never doubt, not for an instant, that Martha's simple plan to alert the world that such a majestic individual as myself existed, might fail. That I might not be so special, after all.
My Doctor would never, could never think like that, or worlds would die and civilizations perish and single human girls from London sacrifice themselves for nothing, in the name of nothing, in the name of a doctor with no name.
As if he knows my doubts, and oh, he does, he decides to put me on TV. "See the powerful Doctor?" he tells the world, slinging out his screwdriver. "Let's see how powerful he really is." And then the shock, and the shame -- weird feeling, shame -- as I leave reasonable existence behind and sail out into the unreasonable, the dying and scared. I shiver and blink. Wrong.
John Smith, poor bloke who never hurt a soul in his life, hates me for the Time Lord inside. Died for it, over and over. Now I just disgust him, a wretched nine hundred year old creature who couldn't save his own people and can't save these.
Meanwhile, the Master skips about, conducting this interview and that one on his propaganda channels, gearing up for the big event. I swing here in a rusty cage, not Time Lord, not human, dying of obscurity.
"Doncha just love it?" The Master asks, grabbing my cage and giving it a hard smack that sends me crushing into the bars. "The world, abuzz with anticipation. Can't you feel it? Can't you hear the drums, Doctor?"
But that's no longer me, no longer my name. I reach a scrawny claw through the bars and stroke his cheek. "I can't," I say. "I wish I could, really, I do, but I can't hear them."
He opens the cage, takes me out and cradles me like a baby. "You're so beautiful," he smiles at me. "Such a perfect physical representation of my conquest. We just have to take pictures."
"Please," I say, no idea what I'm begging for. "Please, Master."
He nods, and then leans in and places a tender kiss on the top of my head, and his lips stay there for a moment and it's like I can feel his energy, that Time Lord energy trickle strugglingly through my veins. He's warm, and familiar, and he holds the fate of stars in his hands.
He is fire, and ice, and rage. And he is wonderful.
I tremble under his touch.
THE LAST DAY
We wait out the next fourteen hours together, watching his death clock count down, just the two of us.
"I thought of many ways to destroy you," he muses. To hurt you as much as I possibly could, and the answer just shouted at me." He shrugs. "A new Gallifrey, to make up for the one you destroyed, built here on the ashes of the human race you pretend to love so much. Another planet you love, burning."
"Because you missed the first one," I say. "You missed it, you ran like a coward, and now you want to make up for it, is that it?"
"It's where we belong," he says. "You said it yourself, just the two of us and all that? We're not like these humans; we're more! Better!"
"No, we're not," I say, and the terror hits me immediately because I believe it. Because I've spent an intimate year with death, and I know its moods now, its internal logic and balance. "We should have died in the Time War," I say. "Both of us, all of us."
"We should have won!" he hurls back.
I shake my old, tired head. "No," I say. "That was our sacrifice, against the Daleks. It was the deal, and I cheated."
He peers at me, almost like he's interested, and I find I'm genuinely pleased by his attention, which both sickens and compels me.
"I can never forgive myself for the choice I had to make back then," I say. "I can never forgive myself for surviving."
"And me?" he says. "I simply eluded death, and quite elegantly too, hiding myself so well. I may have been resurrected as a soldier, but I knew there were greater things in store for me when I stared into that time vortex. I was no soldier, I was meant to be a leader of men, a conquerer of worlds! And so I followed the sound of the drums!"
"You're meant to be dead, same as me," I say. "But leave the people on this planet out of it."
He scowls. "But they're the best part," he whines.
I crawl down off my chair, feeling all that shame again, frustration and weakness and fear, and I drag my ancient body over to where he's sitting. He smiles down at me.
"It's time for us to go," I say. "Take my hand." I hold up a desiccated arm and stare at him. "I can help, with the drumming. I can make it go away."
"Not that easy, Doctor," he says, leaping out of reach and flying up the stairs to his desk, and with every loping stride I envy him.
"Then kill me," I say. "Just kill me, right here, and spare the humans."
He pretends to be shocked. "But you? A Time Lord, with all that ego and that impregnable survival instinct? You've lived ten lifetimes and you're ready to let go of it all right now?"
"I'll surrender to you," I say. "Only to you."
Now he leaps back down and grins, his eyes twinkling with glee. "That's the spirit!" he says. "That's all I ever wanted, Doctor. All I ever asked for was your complete surrender."
I sigh, too achy to move. "You've got it," I say. Because I'm useless, and because I'm dying anyway, and because Martha's not coming back, and even if she does I was mad to think it would work, any of it. Because I owe it to the Master, and because the Time Lord in me is so distant now it's not worth saving. "Kill me, torture me, I'm yours," I say. "I surrender. I surrender."
He scoops me up in his arms again and strokes my great bald head.
"Okay," he says. "I'll tell you what. You stay there in your filthy little birdcage until the countdown ends, and if you don't move against me I'll trust you've truly surrendered and I'll call off the weapons. Deal?"
"I'd stay with you here forever if that's what it takes, or you can kill me as you please," I say.
"We'll see," he says. "We'll see what you choose, at that last moment. Will you truly forgive me, stick it out till the bitter end, or will you do what you always do and protect yourself. Run. Save that glorious Doctor."
"Not so glorious now," I say. "And not worth saving."
He nods, and the Time Lord inside him is glorious, and I ache for it.
"Hold me," I say. "I'll wait out the countdown with you, anything you want, just. Don't leave me here like this. Please."
"Please what?" he grins.
"Please, Master," I say. "My Master."
He slaps the side of my cage and lets me swing free as he leaps away, and I'm alone in the room again.
He is the single most important thing in the universe to me, and I forgive him for everything, for running, for fighting, even for this. Even if he destroyed Earth and everyone on it, I'd forgive him, and I'd love him, because he is me. Now, he is more me than even I've ever been.
I sit in my cage, and I watch the countdown, and I think about my Master, and my fate. Sometimes I wonder how I even made it this far, all reckless and clumsy like I've been, but I realize I've lived more lives than nearly anyone could dream of having, and packed more into each one than most people could in two lifetimes. And that now, with the humans just reaching out to the stars themselves, my race is run. I can sleep now. It's over, and the Master will sleep beside me.
And it doesn't occur to me, not even once in all those long hours, that Martha Jones might still be alive and on her way to save the world.